The secret's out that Baja's wine country is blossoming into something that potentially could be as big as Napa. For now, a visit to the Guadalupe Valley still feels like an off-the-beaten-path exploration.

A 29km (18-mile) drive northeast of Ensenada along Hwy. 3 toward Tecate will bring you to the Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley), the heart of Mexico's small but expanding wine industry. Although more traditional connoisseurs may have been dismissive of Mexico's wine efforts in the past, in recent years the production and quality have made quantum leaps, and several Mexican vintages have earned international acclaim.

Spanish missionaries first introduced wine to Baja California in 1701, when a Jesuit priest, Father Juan de Ugarte, planted the peninsula's first grape vines. In 1791, the first vineyards were established in these fertile valleys at Misión Santo Tomás. In 1888, the Santa Tomás winery was established, giving birth to Baja's wine country.

It wasn't until the 1970s that commercial wineries entered the area, with the establishment of the Domecq and L.A. Cetto operations -- two of Mexico's largest wine producers, which until recently specialized in inexpensive, mass-produced wines. It was the opening of the boutique winery Monte Xanic in the late 1980s that brought the culture of fine wines to the area.

The Valle de Guadalupe is in the "world wine strip," a zone of lands with the climate and porous soil that result in ideal conditions for grape growing -- similar to those found in Northern California, France, Spain, and Italy. Northern Baja's dry, hot summers and cool, humid winters added to a stream of cool ocean breezes make the conditions in Guadalupe Valley especially conducive to grape-growing, similar to what you would find in the Mediterranean. The most common wines produced here include chenin blanc, Colombard, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay among the whites, and cabernet sauvignon, merlot, Barbera, Nebbiolo, and zinfandel among the reds. However, the region's limited rainfall and water supply will likely limit its growth, meaning it is likely to remain the picturesque place it is today rather than growing into a tourist-oriented Napa Valley south.

In 1905, the Mexican government granted political asylum to 100 families from Russia, who arrived in the Guadalupe Valley to cultivate wheat. They soon realized they could earn more for their small colony producing wine and thus became the pioneers of grape cultivation in the area. Although many of the families emigrated to Russian communities throughout the United States during the Cold War, many of the present-day residents are still their descendants. The lovingly maintained Museo Comunitario del Valle de Guadalupe, on Francisco Zarco (tel. 646/155-2069), has displays and artifacts from this curious time of cultural conversion. Although the information is all in Spanish, museum administrator Alex Gallardo currently is developing English-language materials as well. The museum has a small adjoining restaurant that serves traditional Russian food, and a wine tasting is included with the $2 donation to the museum (the wine and food are not recommended). Just across the street is the Museo Histórico Comunitario, affiliated with Mexico's INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History). Although small in scale, it has informative displays of the indigenous Kumiai culture of the region, and more about the influence of the Russian immigrants in the Valley of Guadalupe. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm (tel. 646/178-2531).

The best time to visit the Valle de Guadalupe is in late August, during Las Fiestas de la Vendimia (Harvest Festivals). Various vineyards schedule a multitude of activities during the festivals, including tastings, classical music concerts, and Masses celebrating the harvest.

First Crush: The Annual Harvest Festival -- The Fiesta de la Vendimia (Harvest Festival) is held each year in late August or early September. Set among the endless vineyards of the fertile Valle de Guadalupe, the day's events include the traditional blessing of the grapes, wine tastings, live music and dancing, riding exhibitions, and a country-style Mexican meal. L.A. Cetto offers a group excursion from Tijuana (about an hour's drive); San Diego's Baja California Tours (tel. 800/336-5454 or 858/454-7166 in the U.S.) also organizes a daylong trip from San Diego.

Note that most of the roads in the Valle de Guadalupe are dirt-surfaced, so you'll do well to explore in an SUV. The area's only fully paved road is Hwy. 3 (to Tecate), which cuts through the valley. Most of the wineries and attractions are just off this scenic road, which is lined with vineyards and olive orchards.